Derek Lam, believe it or not, once expected to be a writer. "But," says the designer, "I wasn't very good at it." Instead, Lam, 46, turned to fashion and built a critically acclaimed women's wear label, which, in its 10th year, includes a ready-to-wear line, accessories and a recently launched lower-priced label named 10 Crosby after the address of his SoHo studio. A former protégé of Michael Kors (whom he worked with for the better part of 12 years before founding his namesake brand), he puts a sleek, modern stamp on classic American sportswear. From his New York headquarters, Lam recently spoke about his diffusion line, his disdain for the overblown side of fashion and his endless stock of real-life muses.
Street style has influenced your main collection in past seasons and your new diffusion line, 10 Crosby, which was inspired by the stylish women you observe around your studio in SoHo. Why does your inspiration come so often from reality?
We have access to an incredible amount of information on the screen, but sometimes, you just need to be inspired by people, not avatars. I love to see how people move and how people desire to showcase themselves.
Street style has become so commercial and, in some cases, staged. In New York covering the shows, I noticed more photographers than ever hovering around the tents, snapping away at a lot of women in borrowed outfits. Do you still see it as authentic?
The phenomenon of getting dressed, and these photographs of people walking into a fashion show, has become so much about theatre. And there's nothing wrong with that, but there's a place for parade and there's a place for talking about design.
We don't do the shows at the tents anymore. We don't spend time on the theatrics of the show.
I definitely think [that street style can still be inspirational]. It's funny, but sometimes when you look at trend books, where they show [pictures of real] people on different continents and in different cities – one could be in Stockholm and another could be in Copenhagen or somewhere in Australia – there's a sense of homogenization. It all kind of looks the same. I think that it's very hard to capture that quality of true street style and individuality because it's been published and has already been circulated on the Internet.
As someone who is inspired by real women, what do you consider great personal style?
Crosby Street, where I work, is one of the most artistic corners of Manhattan. I'm surrounded by very creative people there who use fashion as an outlet. And these are all working people, not those getting dressed for performance art. I love looking at how far people will go while still dressing for a work environment. How far will you allow yourself to bend the rules? How much do you want to talk about yourself as an individual? A lot of people that I see on Crosby and the surrounding area have made a lot of choices in life [and it shows] in the way they express themselves. That's very modern.
You've said before that you're much more interested in style than fashion. What does that mean?
[Fashion is about] following trends, and to me that means falling into a trap of media expectation, or how [we're supposed to] talk about fashion for the next season. For me, it's always about [asking myself], how do I express style for this moment? For me, it's always been about how I can push the envelope as opposed to designing a new silhouette because people are looking for it.
In Canada, Derek Lam is sold exclusively at George C. in Toronto (www.georgec.ca).
This interview and has been edited and condensed.